Genzebe Dibaba on her way to breaking the 1500m world record at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Monaco (© Philippe Fitte)
No athlete sets out to be an indoor specialist. Not even athletes such as Genzebe Dibaba, who has broken multiple world indoor records and has won two world indoor titles.
Sometimes it just happens.
As a teenager, Dibaba won world junior titles on both the track and cross country. But since becoming a senior athlete – and, up until this year, at least – the Ethiopian’s best performances have come during the indoor season.
She won the world indoor 1500m title in 2012, and then won another global gold medal on the boards two years later, this time over 3000m. During recent indoor seasons, she has also been unstoppable outside of the championships, setting world indoor records over 1500m and 3000m in 2014 and over 5000m earlier this year.
But outdoors has been a different story.
Despite her dominance in the winter last year, during the summer she lost the aura of invincibility that she had worked so hard to establish. She was beaten in numerous races, both on the IAAF Diamond League circuit and in championship races, ending the year with ‘just’ five wins out of 12 outdoor track races.
The year before that was similar, winning all of her indoor races but failing to record a victory outdoors before finishing eighth at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow. And in 2012, having opened her season with a 3:57.77 triumph in Shanghai, she didn’t win another race for the rest of the year and exited the London Olympics in the heats.
In fact, up until this summer, all of her outright lifetime bests had been set indoors. Not that her pre-2015 outdoor PBs were shabby: 3:57.54 for 1500m, 8:26.21 for 3000m and 14:28.88 for 5000m are times that most elite women can only dream of. But deep down Dibaba knew that she was capable of at least matching her winter form outdoors.
Asked last year why she always performs better under cover, Dibaba explained that she preferred indoors because the conditions suit her better.
“Usually, it is not difficult to change from indoors to outdoors,” she said. “I find outdoors easier than indoors but I am more interested in indoor athletics. I prefer it because it is hotter indoors and I like the shorter laps.
“But last year I felt my back when I was training,” she added. “That was a problem and why my season was not as good outdoors as it was indoors.”
Determined not to let another opportunity of an outdoor senior global title pass her by, Dibaba knew that something needed to change ahead of this year’s IAAF World Championships in Beijing. So over the past winter, she and coach Jama Aden adapted their training, putting a much stronger focus on the summer.
“This year we’ve changed things and have done more intense training for the outdoor season,” Dibaba said on the eve of her race at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Monaco.
“I train mainly with guys and they help to push me,” added Dibaba, who is joined in Aden’s group by the likes of world 800m bronze medallist Ayanleh Souleiman and Qatari 800m runner Musaeb Balla. “It works well for me because there aren’t many women who would be able to train with me.
“I wanted to train more for the outdoor season than the indoor season, so I changed my training totally. I already have natural speed which I don’t need to work on, so in training I’ve been working more on my endurance. Now I think I can run faster outdoors than I previously thought I was capable of.”
Her instincts were right and the results of this new approach speak for themselves.
She notched up three successive victories over 5000m at the IAAF Diamond League meetings in Eugene, Oslo and Paris. Earlier this month, in her first 1500m race of the year, she broke the African record with 3:54.11 in Barcelona.
And then Monaco happened.
Perfect pacing, ideal conditions, top-level opposition; the stars fell into line for Dibaba at the Herculis meeting.
Most of the usual crop of elite pacemakers wouldn’t have been capable of leading Dibaba through the required pace for the first half of the 1500m, so USA’s Chanelle Price – the reigning world indoor champion, no less – was enlisted to help. An opening lap of 60.31 was followed by one of 64.21.
Dibaba then sped up. She saw the clock ticking over to 2:50 as the bell sounded for the final lap and knew she had a chance to break the world record of 3:50.46 set by China’s Qu Yunxia at the 1993 National Games; a mark many had considered untouchable before Friday night.
Having covered the final 800m in 2:01.7 and the last lap in 59.8, Dibaba crossed the line in 3:50.07. The world record was hers.
“With the training I'd been doing in Barcelona, I knew I was able to break the world record, but you never can be sure,” Dibaba said after her record-breaking feat.
“The pacer did a really good job and I was confident in her. In Barcelona I was alone from early on in the race, but here the pacer took me through to 800m. She did such a good job that I knew I had to keep pushing. I didn’t want to waste the opportunity.
“This change in preparation has paid off and I have to thank my coach for making it happen. I already had four indoor world records, but I wanted to break them outdoors. I have been dreaming of an outdoor world record for ever. Now I want them all: the 1500m, the 5000m, even the 800m.
“It was a really fast race in perfect conditions so I don't know if I can go faster,” she added when asked if she could break her own 1500m world record. “But I’d like to return to Monaco next year to try to break the 5000m world record.”
Dibaba has already had a couple of attempts at breaking the 5000m world record of 14:11.15, a mark which belongs to her older sister Tirunesh, the five-time world champion on the track and triple Olympic gold medallist.
The latest attempt, in Paris, saw Dibaba and fellow Ethiopian Almaz Ayana play a cat-and-mouse game before Dibaba stretched away on the final lap to win in 14:15.41, the uneven pacing ruining any chance of a world record.
“I tried to congratulate Ayana after the race in Paris but she didn’t accept it,” Dibaba said of her rival. “During the race we were more focused on beating each other, but I’ll try to break the 5000m world record later this year.”
Her main focus now is the World Championships. Dibaba and her coach will soon make a decision about which event to focus on in the Chinese capital. Before racing in Monaco, she said that if she had to pick just one event, she would opt for the 5000m, but her record-breaking run at the Stade Louis II could have changed her mind. She also hasn’t ruled out doubling up in the 1500m and 5000m.
Whatever event she does, her goal is simple. Having previously won global titles indoors and at cross country, Dibaba now wants to finally complete the all-surfaces trifecta by taking an outdoor global title next month.
“Everybody expects me to win the gold medal,” she said. “I have to do it, especially after what my sister has achieved. I have to do the same, if not better.”
That might just happen.
Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF